A Conversation With Brian Stause
First novels are often considered to be autobiographies in disguise. How
true is that of Maybe a Miracle? For instance, the main character, Monroe
Anderson, lives in the town of your birth, Columbus, Ohio. Do the similarities
go beyond the superficial?
This book is not autobiographical, although certain elements have been drawn
from my life. While none of the major, or for that matter, minor plot points
ever happened to me or anyone I know, Monroe is everything I wish I was and a
lot of things I wish I hadn't been at 18. We're most alike in the sense thatlike
many teenagersI led an awkward, internal life. No one had any idea what was
going on in my head, and if they did they probably would have been quite
They say to write what you know, but unfortunately the life I've lived isn't
exactly chock-full of drama. And indeed, I grew up in Columbus on an idyllic
street in a storybook neighborhood. But it's not like Blue Velvet,
where it was sordid once you start peeling back the layers. It was all quite
painfully normal. Which is all to say, my own familywhile incredibly
supportive of meare not particularly helpful when it comes to making up
stories. There's just not much conflict to draw on, so for the parts of the
Andersons that were inspired by my own family or by people I know, it was
required that I exaggerate those kernels of reality, and once I did that, any
resemblance to their real-life inspirations became incidental.
In a lot of ways Maybe a Miracle is a sibling love story, but
unfortunately I don't have a sister. Writing this book, though, allowed me to
imagine what that dynamic might be like and by placing his sister in a coma from
the very beginning I figured I'd be giving an eighteen-year-old boy the
opportunity to be reflective about that relationship in a way he otherwise
wouldn't have had.
I guess that's what I like most about writingI can put myself into situations
I never would have the opportunity to inhabit in real life. That's what
attracted me to this story. I could throw myself in the middle of a so-called
miracle and see how I might react.
Your editor calls Monroe Anderson and his sister Annika "spiritual
descendants of Holden and Phoebe Caulfield." How much of an influence on
this novel, and on your own development as a writer, was J. D. Salinger?
Editors, I suppose, are prone to bursts of hyperbole.
As far as influencing me, J.D. Salinger wrote an absolutely incredible book. It
was a gift to me and everyone who has ever felt alienated by our increasingly
artificial world. It gave me hope at a time in my life when hope and optimism
seemed pretty lame. Thanks to him and so many other great writers, I've come to
believe that's what novels are forto show us the possibilities of saying yes
in a world where it's so easy to say no.
The other author I was reminded of, in the wry mix of everyday Americana and
the fantastic, was Ray Bradbury. Was he also an influence?
No, I've unfortunately never read Bradbury, but now that you mention it I'll
add him to the list. I already have a bookcase full of unread books that
constantly mock me. I suppose one more won't hurt.
Speaking of miracles, it often seems like one when a writer manages to beat
the odds and have his first novel published. How did this miracle happen for
I assumed it would take me quite awhile to find an agent, let alone get the
book published. I absolutely dreaded the whole process. I figured I'd only have
one shot, so I better not blow it. Fortunately, the author Madison Smartt Bell
is the brother-in-law of a close friend of mine, and I had the good fortune to
make his acquaintance three or four times over the last twelve years. He's an
extraordinary, gracious man. I sent Madison the manuscript, and he seemed to
enjoy what he read. From there, he paved the way to his agent. I sent it to her
in October 2004, and on New Year's Day 2005 I received an email saying she would
love to represent it. I couldn't believe my good luck. It was an amazing way to
begin the year. Then, ten days later, it was sold to Random House. In the sense
that the ease of the entire process completely confounded my expectations, while
not quite rising to the level of a miracle, it certainly left me feeling quite
Monroe comes down pretty hard on the Catholic Church as an institution, as
well as on various priests and other men of the cloth. What about you? I'll take
a wild guess and say that you were raised a Catholic. Do you have an axe to
grind against the church in particular or organized religion in general, and if
I was not raised Catholic, and, in fact, my upbringing wasn't particularly
religious at all. The Catholic Church, though, like many institutionalized
religions, has a way of making itself a target for criticism. Monroe, for
example, is especially disturbed over the Church's problems with pedophilia. It
makes it easy for him to dismiss the entire enterprise. In my eyes, it's
unfortunate that hypocrisy and organized religion frequently have such a cozy
relationship, but certainly not surprising. After all, institutions that support
religion are manmade, and as a result they're going to be riddled with
imperfections. No matter how good their intentions, people screw things up. It's
what they do. And while the men and (sometimes) women within any given
religion's power structure hold themselves to holy ideals, not only is it an
impossible standard to achieve, but when they fail, they put the whole endeavor
into question. I think teenagers are particularly adept at focusing in on life's
hypocrisies, which is why Monroe is frequently so hung up on the Church's
contradictions. The gulf between what they preach and what they do is too large
for him to take the church seriously, which is a shame since, on perhaps a more
important level, while resistant, he's quite attracted to the power of faith.
Do you believe in God?
I believe in a power exponentially greater than our collective selves.
What about miracles?
Every spring I believe the Cincinnati Reds will be in the World Series come
October. So I guess I do.
What is a miracle anyway? I mean, it would help to have a definition
that people could agree on. But is there such a definition?
The universe is full of inexplicable wonders. In my eyes, life itself is
miraculous, but according to my American Heritage Dictionary, a miracle is
"an event that appears unexplainable by the laws of nature and so is held
to be supernatural in origin or an act of God." That said, since most
religions conclude that God is our creatortherefore making life itself
supernatural in originI'm always amazed that people will go out of their way
to see a supposedly spontaneous image of the Virgin Mary under a bridge or on a
grain silo, while on their way to that blessed site they pass by a million even
more amazing miraclesfrom the incredibly complex movements of our hands to
the intricate patterns of veins on a leaf to the beauty of the sun rising and
setting. We're surrounded by so many incredible giftsthe most amazing of
which is our very ability to appreciate them. If there's a real miracle, it's
Writing this novel must have given you an unusual insight into the whole
political, religious, and media circus surrounding the sad circumstances of
Terry Schiavo. Did that seem like life imitating art?
Not really. While, indeed Terry Schiavo's story is painfully sad and
depressing, conversely, I hope Annika's story is full of life. It was
gut-wrenching to see Terry Schiavo turned into a sideshow attraction. Her brain
had turned to mush. There was nothing there. In that regard she was a fitting
symbol for the so-called "culture of life" movement who shamelessly
exploited a brain-dead woman to promote their own misguided political
objectives. It's ironic, I suppose, in the sense that Ms. Schiavo's brain waves
and those of the people who wanted to keep her alive were functioning on the
same flat-lining level.
To reverse the equation, are the possible miracles that begin to take place
around Annika, such as the scent and shower of roses and the stigmata, and
public reactions to them, based on specific historical occurrences?
Stigmata, of course, has long been accepted by the Catholic Church as a
viable manifestation of the wounds Jesus suffered while he was being crucified.
The Church has given the stamp of approval to over 300 cases in the last
thousand years, and I looked at many different accounts while researching the
book. Mysterious events that are accorded religious significance occur around
the world all the time. And while I read about many strange tales of objects
falling from the sky, I don't believe I ever heard a story about a rose petal
storm. (Now there's a case I'd love to see of life imitating art.)
In America today, controversy rages over the proper spheres of religious
faith and scientific belief. It's everywhere from politics to entertainment to
sports. Do you think there is an inevitable clash between these two viewpoints?
Why has it gotten so ugly of late, and where do you think it is leading?
I don't think the clash is inevitablein my mind, science and religious
faith are not diametrically opposed. There's a place for each, and I'd venture
to guess that quite a few scientists believe in God. Of course, science is about
searching for the truth, and religionespecially in the hands of
fundamentalistsis all too frequently about promoting dogma. And those are
somewhat irreconcilable positions from which to begin a reasonable discussion.
As far as religion moving into a spherelike, say, the classroomit's pretty
ironic that while we're at war with Islamic fundamentalists abroad, Christian
fundamentalists are promoting the kind of religious indoctrination practiced by
Islamic madresses back home. It's gotten ugly because some politicians have
realized they can exploit faith-related issues as a means to gain power. This
tactic, of course, is nothing new and they will continue to do it until it stops
About the only traditional American values that come away unscathed in your
book are pot, baseball, and George Clinton's band, P-Funk.
The quintessential American values are faith, freedom, and democracy. The
ethereal delights of P-Funk and pot certainly fall under the banner of freedom.
Meanwhile, the great game of baseball embodies our democratic ideals. Faith,
though, is what makes this country what is, and I don't mean that in a religious
sense. It is Americans' faith in the futurethe idea that you can come to
America and make a better lifethat continues to bring immigrants to our
shores and across our borders. We are all enriched by their optimism for a
better future. In many ways, Maybe a Miracle is a celebration of faith.
Those who have faith are repeatedly rewarded. When I started writing this book,
I think I confused faith with religion; by the time I was done, I not only
realized they're two completely different things, but I surprised myself with
how much faith I have.
Interview reproduced with the permission of Ballantine Books.